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Residents Fear Contaminated Food Near Iraqi Nuclear Plant - 2003-06-09

While nuclear experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency investigate possible radioactive contamination at the looted Tuwaitha nuclear research center south of Baghdad, local residents have become afraid to drink the water or eat locally produced food, fearing it may be contaminated.

Twenty kilometers south of Baghdad lies the agricultural village of Tuwaitha. Here, thousands of people converge on the town to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.

But in recent weeks fewer people have been coming. That's because there's a fear that the area may have been contaminated with radioactive material that was looted from Iraq's former nuclear research facility located in Tuwaitha, after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The facility stored 500 tons of natural uranium and almost two tons of low-enriched uranium known as yellowcake.

During the looting, it is believed drums were dumped of their radioactive material and then sold to local residents, who used them to, among other things, wash clothes. Some residents may have also rinsed out the drums in the nearby Tigris river. Since the looting, as many as 100 drums have been recovered.

Hamid Abbas, a potato farmer in Tuwaitha, says everyone is afraid to drink the water or eat the food, but he asks, What can they do? They have to drink and eat, he says. He says everyone is quite sure that the food has been contaminated.

Mr. Abbas said it is good that experts with the International Atomic Energy Agency are investigating the Tuwaitha nuclear research facility. But, he says, they also need to come into town and check the food and water supplies for possible contamination.

Not everyone is drinking the local water or eating locally grown food. For those who can afford it, many are driving to Baghdad to purchase their groceries.

While Mr. Abbas praised coalition forces for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, he said people are afraid there is a possible environmental disaster in Tuwaitha, and they want help.

The schedule of the international nuclear experts investigating the Tuwaitha nuclear research center is being kept secret. Their activities are being closely monitored by coalition officials.

Their mission is expected to last two weeks, and it is not known if they plan to meet with local residents or conduct radiological tests in the town of Tuwaitha.